On Campus, a Different Pyramid Scheme

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Classes that explore the controversial “base of the pyramid” economic development theory are proliferating at B-schools around the world. More B-school students than ever will be taking courses in “base of the pyramid” theory when they go back to campus this fall?an indication that the idea that economic development can come from selling products to the world’s poor has gone from buzz to curriculum staple.

The base of the pyramid concept, which is not universally embraced, was developed by two B-school professors in the late 1990s, with the core idea that companies can make money by selling products to the world’s estimated 4 billion poor people, while at the same time helping to wipe out global poverty. Companies started implementing business models based on this idea several years ago; business schools are just now beginning to catch up.

In the past two years there has been a sharp rise on B-school campuses in electives, specialized research institutes, student clubs, and internships focused on this topic, according to a June report from the Aspen Institute, a Washington (D.C.)-based nonprofit that has been tracking development issues in the B-school curriculum. “The growth in the number of schools with some content on the base of the pyramid has been tremendous,” said Rich Leimsider, a senior program associate at the Aspen Institute. This, he adds, “Is the equivalent of lightning-fast change on business school campuses.”
From South Africa to Spain

The Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes biennial report surveys 112 business schools in 21 countries. In 2001 only 13 schools offered classes with a focus on sustainability issues; by 2005, 60 schools had courses in the subject, the survey showed. Although 2007 data are not yet available from the report, preliminary data show a sharp spike in the number of courses being offered in this subject area, with dozens of schools this fall offering base of the pyramid electives or working the content into core courses, Leimsider said.

Business schools from South Africa to Spain are setting up special base of the pyramid learning labs and institutes devoted to the emerging body of academic work on the subject. Meanwhile, in the U.S., business schools from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to Cornell’s Johnson School of Management have become hubs for students interested in studying the topic (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/15/05, “For the Poor, Help from MBAs”).

“I think we’re seeing the beginning of a trend as folks coming to business school are thinking more about societal issues and they are realizing it’s important to consider a lot of viewpoints across the globe for business,” said Ted London, director of the base of the pyramid initiative at the William Davidson Institute, an independent research institute specializing in emerging market economies, housed at Michigan’s Ross School.

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Source: Business Week (link opens in a new window)